The thorniest recurrent problems are how to avoid the perennial optional/ compulsory dichotomy; and how to be generously flexible about exceptions without letting exceptions swallow up valuable norms. Permissiveness is the obverse of rigorism, part of the same trap. Christians need to appreciate, not smugly but gratefully, what really is life-enhancing, and not allow what they know to be good to be reduced to optional extras or unrealistic ideals. To let fidelity go by default in discouragement or cynicism could be to sin against the Holy Ghost. Understanding is hampered by backlashes on both sides which are not even attempting tolerance. There is a traditional backlash against liberalism which makes no effort to understand discontent, and unimaginatively 'upholds standards'. This reaction fuels a radical backlash which actively sets about denying ancient blessings and destroying ancient standards.
Sometimes it is supposed that everything is different today, for good or ill; sometimes that morality at least is unchangeable. The feeling that we are living in frightening times, in too big a universe with alien powers in charge, is not new: nor the conviction of successive generations of elders that 'young people today have no standards'. There never was a golden age. Goodness is always in jeopardy, and nagging could never be the answer: nor the kind of self-fulfilling defeatism which brandishes alarming statistics (Oppenheimer 1990:1-4).
There was no golden age: but there is a revolution, mostly medical, with real ethical consequences. Right and wrong abide but terms of reference change. Effective safeguards against disastrous pregnancy really have altered the demands of prudence. It is understandable that the notion of a 'human right' to sexual experience has gained ground. The menace of AIDS has not abolished that notion, though it has polarized attitudes. For some, the old idea of natural law has acquired increased authority; for others, the idea of safe casual sex has been positively advertised by the recommendation of sensible precautions. Those who believe that the demands of faithfulness are as valid as ever have the responsibility, indeed the opportunity, to explain faithfulness anew in its fresh context.
Panic, resentment and aggressiveness are unconstructive. What Christians need in sexual ethics, as everywhere, is objective information; courage looking steadily at ascertained facts; faith remembering God's presence; and imaginative goodwill, transcending tolerance, entering into other people's situations. Some of the troubles which cluster around sexual ethics arise from attempts to enforce love rather than enable it (Oppenheimer 1986:160-2). Legislation cannot work unless legislators understand the limitations of law; but there is plenty of scope for providing frameworks for flourishing: legal, social and educational. Timing needs attention. For example, when vows are broken and reconciliation is impossible there can be conciliation; like the terminal care a hospice provides when cure is impossible. A marriage, like a human being, can make a 'good end'. If we would rather it made a good start, the foundations are best laid long before. Children learn about relationships from babyhood: that is when encouragement can begin for their development into men and women who will be able to love one another (Oppenheimer 1990:109). The Christian personalist contribution is emphasis on human happiness: not instant satisfaction of the most vocal but the long-term flourishing of all concerned according to the purpose of their Creator.
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